Disappointment overcame the Lynah Faithful during the beginning of the St. Lawrence contest last weekend. The Saints raced ahead to a two-goal lead in less than five minutes of play. A Cornell team that had been held scoreless for 146:46 of game play had dug itself a deficit. The worst part of the opening frame and the early implosion was that Cornell seemed indifferent.
The clumsy bounce of a power-play goal off of a Red skater to beat ever-prepared Gillam for the second tally added to what seemed to be becoming a comedy of errors. There was no passion. It was apathetic. It was the closest that this writer has been to abandoning a game. Quickly, Cornell was headed in the wrong direction.
Mike Schafer implied during the Florida College Hockey Classic that he had seen the ugly head of dispassion reared. He elected to criticize this team's lack of "passion on the bench" and absence of "the will to win." The first period in Canton made it seem that a relapse for the weekend was all but inevitable.
The second period was a breath of fresh air more awakening than the brisk winds of the North Country. The switch was flipped. Cornell was outshot by just one shot over the final two periods. The Big Red established its trademark physicality and imposed a tenacious backcheck which allowed Cornell to tilt zone time in its favor over the last two periods.
The officials found the Saints deserving of their name with allowing them four power-play opportunities to Cornell's two. As this writer wrote earlier in the season, this team has the uncommon ability to play Cornell hockey when chasing a game. Half of this team's victories have come when it surrendered the lead.
The second and third periods made it hopeful that Cornell would complete another come-from-behind victory. St. Lawrence was absolutely smothered throughout the final frames. Jacob MacDonald dazzled with his offensive flair when he tucked the puck away off of a quick wrister from the left face-off circle.
St. Lawrence did find the back of an empty net to expand its winning margin. The lessons remained. Cornell could have won that contest in Appleton Arena if it had not taken the opening face-off flat-footed and dull-minded. In other words, it had the potential to get a very important win. But, as this writer established with this edition of Cornell hockey in particular, potential might as well be a four-letter word.
Cornell found resilience against St. Lawrence. Its resolve would be tested more the next evening. Gillam was expected to make his second start of the weekend at Cheel Arena. The sophomore netminder was injured during early-morning skates in Potsdam. Hayden Stewart became the necessary recipient of the nod for the evening. Stewart, like the team in front of him, delivered a stellar effort.
Cornell waited for less than half of the game to remain before Matt Buckles backhanded the rubber disc past Runola. Buckles's celebration after the goal was appropriate for taking a road lead over one of the historic powers of ECAC Hockey. Stewart made it all but obvious that he was going to keep his sheet clean through the contest. Jake Weidner gave his freshman netminder some insurance with a power-play marker in the opening of the third period.
Ah, yes, power-play goals. They have become too uncommon. The last time that the Big Red had made an opponent pay for an infraction was against Brown. Six complete games including 17 power-play opportunities separated Matt Buckles's power-play goal against Brown and Jake Weidner's power-play goal against Clarkson.
Special-teams battles like those, Cornell needs to win. Two things safeguard against absolute panic regarding the Red's poor production on the power play. The power play from East Hill has not reached the depths whereupon fans question actively if Schafer just should decline the penalties because opponents benefit from the penalty kill more than the team benefits from the man advantage. That abyss has not been reached.
During this downturn in power-play potency, Cornell's penalty kill has ranked consistently among the nation's ten best. The stellar goaltending of Mitch Gillam and Hayden Stewart has proven invaluable. Gillam and Stewart own the best and second-best save percentages of all ECAC Hockey netminders who have played more than two games, respectively. Stewart was called upon and he delivered. His style may be more instinctual and reflexive than is that of Gillam, but with two shutouts in six starts, Stewart has proven deserving of the legacy of the sweater he wears in the position where he wears it.
The need for Stewart to replace Gillam last weekend is not the only way in which injury affects this team. Just one game after regaining expected star defenseman Joakim Ryan from injury, Joel Lowry was removed from the line-up. Mike Schafer announced after last weekend that Lowry is out indefinitely due to injury.
The loss of Joel Lowry is a huge setback to this team. He has been the impassioned soul of this senior class from when the season began. He stands as the lone senior who never seemed to coast through any games this season. Few have had more than one or two, but Lowry has none. The look of exhilarated ecstasy conquering his expression, as he scored the game-winning goal against Penn State at Madison Square Garden, incorporates the emotion with which he drives this team.
The task before Cornell is a difficult one. After a great run of recent success, Union is a flailing, gnashing beast. The team is desperate but unrefined relative to Union teams as of late, too. RPI is a team grossly underperforming. From the blueline with Kasdorf to the talented corps of forwards expected of the 'Tute, RPI is a team that should have been bound for the NCAA tournament but finds itself nine games below 0.500.
The Engineers count as a newcomer one of the more dynamic forwards in the league in Louie Nanne. Anyone who has not had the chance to see him play should use this weekend as a chance to remedy that. The eponymous grandson of the Minnesota hockey legend is a joy to watch.
The Capital Region is a paradox. Union hockey, customary employer of a defensive-leaning system, is in the bottom half of teams nationally in terms of team defense. The Engineers, traditional proponents of an offense-first system, are among the four worst teams in the nation offensively. In Union and RPI, Cornell faces opponents whose current play is more diametrically opposite to their desired modus operandi than is the Big Red to its own.
Cornell's defense and goaltending align with the program's expectations. It just needs to score, which is easier said than done. Matt Buckles, John McCarron, and Joakim Ryan are players who should be counted on to fill the void that Joel Lowry's absence creates. Confidence has replaced desperation as the buzzword for this season. When sustained scoring returns in the second half of the season, likely behind the efforts of the usual suspects, confidence will overflow.
Joel Lowry was the player who one could tell imbued confidence this season. This team will need to find a way to mine success without him. Lowry is a deservedly touted offensive talent who chose to return to Cornell for his education and the chance to bring a championship to East Hill. This team should be driven to win for Joel and return the favor of the energy that he has given to Cornell over an impressive career.